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A walk by the River Thames in the morning down the alleyways and round the corners that inspired the novels of the Victorian writer Charles Dickens. An afternoon getting to know the house in Bloomsbury that was the first marital home he shared with his wife and mother of his ten children, Catherine Hogarth.
We expected sunshine, and we expected things to have changed a great deal since the author of Sketches by Boz strode the capital’s streets walking his customary 15 miles a day. In fact, the rain fell steadily throughout the morning. We needed the stout shoes and waterproofs that London Walks had advised us to bring. We learnt that some things in London haven’t changed a jot between Dickens’ time and ours. Horse-drawn traffic in the 1850s moved at 12 miles an hour. In 2013, motor vehicles move at exactly the same speed.
Our guide Paul Tzara led us down the narrow lanes of the Middle and Inner Temples, describing how they would have been in Dickens’ day, before the Thames was embanked in the 1850s by Joseph Bazalgette. The rank water of the river bore cholera to the population of the growing city, whose 1.5 million mass at the beginning of the century had grown to five million by its end.
We saw houses here that feature in the novels, including Edward Chester’s in Barnaby Rudge, who lodges in Inner Temple. Standing next to the Elizabethan Middle Temple Hall, where Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed on 2 February 1602, we looked across the river to Southwark. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was outside the boundaries of the City of London and the haunt of law students and other respectable citizens looking for theatres and brothels.
At the age of 12, Charles Dickens’ was sent to work 12 hours a day, six days a weeks, putting labels on tins in a blacking factory. Our walk introduced us to the site of the original factory, and the site it moved to later on during Dickens’ time there. His father, who thought of himself as a man of taste, and whose expenditure always exceeded his income, needed the money his younger son could bring in.
Charles Dickens’ nature was infiltrated by grief and humiliation by the events of his childhood. It marked his fiction. His father appears in the guise of the happy-go-lucky character of Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, who famously sums up the significance of money to the human condition: ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’
A lighter side of the younger Dickens flourished when he left the manual labours of the blacking factory to become a clerk in Gray’s Inn. He didn’t like the work, but he enjoyed leaning out of the window and blowing cherry stones at the hats of ladies walking beneath.
Hearing the word ‘Dickensian’ spoken out loud gave us pause in our ramblings. We realised the adjective had two quite distinct meanings. ‘A Dickensian Christmas’, such as that described in A Christmas Carol, is one of abundance and good humour. The phrase ‘Dickensian conditions’ however, speaks of human misery and the trampling of the already downtrodden.
Throughout his adult life, Dickens’ visited the morgue and the prison in whatever city he found himself, seeing himself as a champion of the oppressed. At the point when London had a population of 2.5 million, 50,000 to 60,000 women were working as prostitutes. Many times, we learnt, he was encouraged to stand for election as a Member of Parliament. He refused, saying that he could change conditions for the poor far more effectively as a writer than as a politician. In our own times of disillusionment with politics, are there people choosing their path in life who think as Dickens did?
What of the house at 48 Doughty Street? A shadow of the writer’s outline, artfully placed on the staircase from the ground floor to the first floor brought home to us just how small in stature Charles Dickens was, his slight, frail figure the legacy of privations early in his life. This glimpse of him reminded us that he was anything but robust, making all the more remarkable his incessant walking, campaigning, theatre-going, public reading, entertaining – and prolific writing.